By Crawford Hollingworth & Liz Barker
Behavioural science has contributed much to the understanding of decision-making in the last few decades. We now understand how heuristics and biases can influence our thinking, perceptions, choices and behaviour. Yet, many of the frequently cited studies from behavioural science have been conducted on students, typically in their early twenties.
Consequently, people often ask whether these findings still hold in other generations:
- Does our decision making process differ as we get older?
- Do we become more or less ‘rational’?
- And if minds do differ, how does the 20 year old mind differ to the 70 or 80 year old mind?
Research on the ageing mind by psychologists including Ellen Peters, Laura Carstensen, Mara Mather, Yiwei Chen and Joseph Mikels is still in its infancy, but their initial conclusion is that there are significant differences between the younger and older mind. Analysis of cognitive decision-making in older people finds that key thinking processes change as we age, and that some cognitive biases and heuristics are often more prevalent in older people. Three key differences are outlined below:
1) The old rely more on System 1 thinking: From our 20s and early 30s onwards, our reasoning and deliberative capacity (known as fluid intelligence) declines with age, and although our knowledge and experience (or crystallised intelligence) increases with age to compensate, eventually this also starts to decline in our 70s, leading to an eventual downward trend in decision-making ability in later years.
These cognitive declines are thought to occur due to a reduction in the integrity of brain connectivity; vascular damage in the brain – even in the healthiest of people – reduces the efficiency of white matter connectivity which then affects aspects such as working memory which are crucial for fluid intelligence.
Therefore, day-to-day, older people tend to rely less on fluid intelligence and deliberative capacity and more on gut-feel, intuition, rules of thumb and shortcuts (System 1 type decision-making) – things learned through experience and which can actually lead to equally effective decision making in areas they are familiar with. But it’s also harder for them to ignore or sift through irrelevant information and their ability to absorb and process numeric information also declines. For example, when asked which numbers represented the biggest risk of getting a disease, 1 in 10, 1 in 100 or 1 in 1000, 29% of adults aged 65-94 could not answer correctly. Reduced numeracy can mean older people are more prone to framing effects.
Ellen Peters, Professor of Psychology at Ohio State University believes that although older people are still capable of drawing on their fluid intelligence and the more deliberative processes of System 2, it takes more effort so they tend to save up precious cognitive resources for important decisions they care about which have significant consequences.
2) Older people are more affected by choice overload: The older we get the more difficult we tend to find it to navigate a proliferation of choice. So older people tend to prefer simple choices with minimal options and information that is succinct and pretty straightforward. An 85 year old retired engineer in the US trying to make her healthcare choices exclaimed:
“I’m 85, do I have to go through this nonsense? I’m trying to absorb all the information, but it’s ridiculous. Not just ridiculous, it’s scary. If there was a single card and it was administered by Medicare, and it got the cost of drugs down — wonderful, marvellous.”
Research supports this anecdote:
- In a study by Andrew Reed, Joseph Mikels and Kosali Simon where participants were asked to make choices across domains of healthcare (prescription drug plans, physicians, and hospitals) and everyday decisions (cars, apartments or jams), older adults did not value choice as much as the young. Older adults tended to prefer half the number of options to younger adults and the very old (eg 80+ year olds) tended to prefer even less choice than people in their 60s and 70s.
- Other studies have found that the old have a greater tendency to defer decisions when faced with what they perceive as too much choice. Yiwei Chen and colleagues presented younger and older adults with a choice of four cars to buy, as well as the option to defer purchase or not make any decision to buy at that time. Older adults were both more likely to defer their decision and also did not experience negative emotions afterwards, such as regret or worry about not making a purchase.
3) Older people are drawn to positive affect more: Affect and emotion play a much larger role in decision-making for older people. They have a greater tendency to focus on, seek out and remember positive emotional experiences and find positive information more salient whilst either not noticing or forgetting negative messages. This may mean they will be more influenced by positive frames than negative. There is also evidence that they are more affected by loss aversion.
Much of the research by Laura Carstensen and her colleagues illustrates this phenomenon. For example:
- In one study, Laura Carstensen and Helene Fung found that, relative to their younger peers, older adults showed far greater preference for emotional advertisements relying on positive affect than others and tended to remember them better. Older people preferred airline slogans such as ‘Take flight…your loved ones await’ or ‘Take flight…expand your horizons’. Notably they also demonstrated better recall of both the slogan and airline brand when these were framed positively.
- Another study testing picture recall for positive, neutral and negative images found that although the old remembered fewer pictures overall compared to younger participants, they tended to remember a greater proportion of positive pictures (such as a boy with his grandfather, or an affectionate couple) than negative pictures (such as a couple in a hospital or images of a plane crash), whereas the young tended to recall greater proportions of negative images.
Older people’s tendency to focus on the positive is thought to be related to the stage they have reached in life. Gone are the goal striving, purpose-seeking, horizon-expanding days of their youth. Instead they focus on what brings emotional satisfaction, either through meaningful relationships (such as grandchildren or friendships) or ways in which to savour life, because they perceive their life is nearer its end than its beginning – a phenomenon known as Socioemotional Selectivity Theory.
The insights above highlight two things:
- One, we need to continue to conduct cross-generational research to fully understand how our decision-making changes as we age. As behavioural science increasingly combines lab work with field research across mixed demographics, the potential for expanding our understanding is now much enhanced.
- Two, any practitioner using behavioural insights is now able to draw on these existing insights to customise communications, user experience and behavioural interventions according to age, thereby optimising any intervention and increasing its likely efficacy.
In an era where older people are set to become an increasingly significant proportion of society, with different needs and abilities, moving beyond reliance on ageing stereotypes and making use of truly insightful knowledge and understanding will put us in good stead.
 This peak and decline in crystallised intelligence may now figure later in life as education levels, health and nutrition improve. A 2015 study at MIT and Harvard by Joshua Hartshorne and Laura Germine found that vocabulary tests revealed a peak in crystallised intelligence in people’s late 60s or even early 70s. The same study also found that peaks in measures of fluid intelligence varied – some peaked early in life whilst others did not peak until age 40. See Hartshorne, Joshua K. & Laura T. Germine. (2015). When does cognitive functioning peak? The asynchronous rise and fall of different cognitive abilities across the lifespan. Psychological Science, 26(4), 433-443 and MIT News http://news.mit.edu/2015/brain-peaks-at-different-ages-0306
 Logie, R.H., Morris, R.G. “Working memory and Ageing” Psychology Press, 2014, p xiv
 Peters, E. “Aging-related changes in decision-making” in A. Drolet, N. Schwarz, & C. Yoon (Eds.), The Aging Consumer: Perspectives from Psychology and Economics, (pp 75-101). New York: Routledge; and Peters, E. at RAND 2009: http://www.rand.org/pubs/conf_proceedings/CF254.html#agingrelated-changes-in-decision-making
 Leland J. 73 Options for Medicare Plan Fuel Chaos, Not Prescriptions. The New York Times, May 12, 2004. May 12, 2004.
 Reed, A.E., Mikels, J., Simon, K. “Older Adults Prefer Less Choice than Younger Adults” Psychology and Aging. 2008 Sep; 23(3): 671–67
 Chen, Y. Ma, X., Pethtel, O., “Age Differences in Trade-Off Decisions: Older Adults Prefer Choice Deferral” Psychology and Aging. 2011 June; 26(2): 269–273
 Fung H.H., Carstensen L.L. “Sending memorable messages to the old: age differences in preferences and memory for advertisements.” Journal Pers Soc Psychol. 2003 Jul;85(1):163-78.
 Turk, S., Mather, M., Carstensen, L.L., “Aging and Emotional Memory: The Forgettable Nature of Negative Images for Older Adults” Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2003, Vol. 132, No. 2, 310–324
 See the work of Laura Carstensen for more eg Carstensen, L. “A Long Bright Future: An Action Plan for a Lifetime of Happiness, Health, and Financial Security” 2011, PublicAffairs